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04. Extensions & Mastery

The Human Body, Tools, And Second Principles

Sep 07, 2010

The Human Body, Tools, And Second Principles

Interesting article today on Scientific American concerning our use of tools and the level to which our brain can assimilate tools as parts of the body. This is something I’ve thought a lot about as a musician and Interaction Designer.

The article provides a good jumping off point for a new thesis principle I’d like to share:

Principle Number Two: The most widely mastered tool is the human body.

For the most part, the instruments (read: tools) we have accrued developed out of historical context and technological constraints. The acoustic guitar, the drum set, various percussive sticks and boxes and tubes, the violin, the piano, etc., and etc. have all, after a certain point, stopped progressing with technology. The sound of the instrument—and the physical form that produces that sound—became cherished tradition.

Most of us have picked up an acoustic guitar at least once. Maybe someone showed you a C chord. You pressed down, but the strings hurt your fingers and when you strummed you heard more muted plunking than you heard notes. If you were stubborn, you picked it up at least a few more times and figured out how to make the C chord sound good. If you were really stubborn you learned all the other chords, grew a few calluses on your fingers, and maybe even strummed a few songs you still remember. If you’re the <1% of the population who reaches musical mastery, you picked up that guitar and didn't put it down until your fingers were as lingual as your tongue.

Humans, and some other animals, are able to use tools as additions to the body. When we use a long pole to retrieve an object we couldn’t otherwise reach, the pole becomes, in some sense, an extension of our body. — Patrick Haggar & Matthew R. Longo

So, to the issue of mastering these extensions; making them part of our bodies. If you’re mastering a back-scratcher, it probably won’t take you 10,000 hours. Mastering a guitar on the other hand could take you years; the piano a lifetime. These hurdles drive a lot of people away from creating and participating in music. But there may be a secret to bringing them back: movement. Nearly everyone dances. Why? Because you don’t have to dance through an instrument. There’s no learning curve.

First, from the brain’s perspective, the body is by far the most familiar object in the world: the body, as William James elegantly put it, is ‘always there.’ — Patrick Haggar & Matthew R. Longo

So, there it is. I’d like to try and bring these musical extensions we’ve created over the years back into the body. Maybe I’ll fail. Maybe the problem is just too difficult. Maybe to be truly expressive and musical with any tool, including your body, you must spend years obtaining a certain level of mastery. But if the body really is the most widely mastered tool, certainly it’s got to shave some time off that 10,000 hours.

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